Americans are truly excellent at four things: ingenuity, marketing, making chicken wings and inventing their own sports. The first three, of course, are also all foundational pillars of American sporting glory; it would be nothing without the wings.
And so, as the US gears up to face the Netherlands on Saturday, its first ever appearance in the knockout round of the World Cup this century, I am duty bound to issue a plea: for the love of all that you hold sacred, please America, don’t get into soccer. This would be a huge mistake.
While covering the World Cup in Doha, I’ve watched the US men’s national team, or USMNT as they are unforgivably referred to, play in a couple of games. And I have to say I’m pretty concerned. Don’t get me wrong: they’ve been impressive on the pitch and deserved to qualify from their group. They outran and outfought a good England side in a 0-0 draw. Then they played their bobby socks off to win a highly-charged showdown with Iran.
But this is precisely what worries me. What if soccer properly takes off in America, as it has been threatening to do for decades?
The US fans I’ve met in Doha have been keen and well-intentioned. They’ve even developed a couple of chants, bless ’em. There is “U-S-A” done to the rhythm of the great Icelandic “hu” clap. And there’s “it’s called soccer” to the familiar tune of “Let’s Go Pony.” I think the latter chant is a regrettable attempt at transatlantic banter.
But it’s painfully clear that American men’s soccer culture is nowhere near ready for prime time. This is a country that still refers to its national team as a “program,” which is not even close to OK.
US fans have been chatty on public transport in Doha, as Americans often are. Several have told me excitedly that soccer is about to explode in the US, with the next World Cup taking place there (along with Canada and Mexico) and Lionel Messi poised to join the MLS team Inter Miami for his twilight years.
Last week, one soccer-loving American congressman, who shall remain nameless, confidently informed me over dinner that Serbia are the dark horses to win the tournament. Reader, they are not. (They were eliminated by Switzerland shortly prior to publication.)
Up until now, outside of Hispanic culture, soccer has remained a mostly niche upper-middle class pursuit in America, played on rarefied college campuses and loved by ironic hipsters, giving it a mild countercultural tinge. Viewing figures for “EPL” (English Premier League) matches in the US remain relatively low — under a million per game.
The tragedy of soccer taking off in the US is that it would flatten and corrode one of the best things about America: its splendid sporting culture. Even worse, you’d probably end up being really good at it.
As a Brit, I love American sports culture because of how absurdly and uniquely American it is. I love that you call your national baseball championship the World Series with a straight face. I love that people will fly 2,000 miles just to watch their local college play in a university basketball match. I love that eight of the ten biggest sport stadiums in the entire world are dedicated to amateur college football. I adore the language and the lore: the Big House, March Madness, the Red River Showdown.
It’s all so fabulously over the top, the product of a continental culture with not the slightest sense of — or interest in — how things are done in the rest of the world. It is the very insularity of it all, its pure, unrefined, unapologetic, bonkers Americanness that makes it so special. These sports were invented alongside the very idea of America itself, and they sit at the heart of its self-conception.
Don’t ruin this by obsessing over the same sport as everyone else. I mean show the matches by all means, have your own league, acknowledge the beautiful game. The US women’s side is a big success. But please don’t allow the all-conquering soccer hegemon to bring American sports culture to heel.
There can be no surer path to ending American greatness. American sports are all about winning: there is no concept of a tie. But bring soccer’s 0-0 draw into your lives and you might as well hand China the keys to Taiwan now.
Don’t get me wrong, I like soccer. I love the World Cup and the bizarre clash of nations and cultures it fosters. I think it’s great we have a global game that any kid anywhere in the world can participate in, simply by pinning up a Cristiano Ronaldo poster and kicking a ball around the front yard.
But soccer has conquered enough worlds and it has too much money already. The vast money-grubbing octopus that is Fifa won’t stop though. It wants to dominate America, just as it wants India to lay down its cricket bats and Australia to switch from oval ball to round. It will keep giving World Cup tournaments to the US. Premier League sides will continue turning up stateside for their lucrative pre-season tours.
Soccer will keep knocking on the door, in the hope that someday it can gobble up America’s untold sporting riches. Don’t let it. I say this not out of snobbery or disdain, but out of love for what makes America different. You do you guys.